Gentrification Blues: Corruption in Brisbane’s Suburbs

Last week I was woken from an exhausted sleep by my partner, who, gently rolling my shoulder, told me he was under arrest.

As I shook the coma from my eyes, I spotted the two police officers standing uneasily around the bedroom door. I could tell they were not sure how to react to two 70-plus-year-olds, living in a house full of art and artefacts but obviously in the shit. The charge? Wilful damage to a star picket. Yes, one of those metal stakes you can buy at Bunnings for $7.46. I know, as I had just brought a new one to support a sapling. For the sake of the summons, it was worth $250. Wow! What would the governor of the Reserve Bank say about that level of inflation?

While I waited at the station for my partner’s release, the contractor who laid the charge and who, the week before, had slammed my partner’s shoulder with some iron fencing, emerged with a satisfied smirk. My spirit sank.

I look on that smirk as meaning something like triumph. I’ve been told that police don’t normally attend trivial misdemeanours, much less in such record time. But it was less than half an hour after the contractor called that the police arrived to witness the end of a verbal stoush. They immediately sided with the contractor and his star picket. Since then, my partner has had to answer a peace and order summons. He the very man who went to jail in opposition to the War on Vietnam.

Once a working-class feedline to the industries over the hill in Morningside and Murarrie, our suburb, Bulimba/Balmoral, is now an upper-middle-class showroom due to its proximity to the Brisbane River and its spectacular views. One privileged type suggested we become a gated suburb to keep out undesirables. Where once were barbeques and old beer crates are now rarely used swimming pools.

As the houses have expanded to fit the blocks, gardens are being concertinaed. Trees are brutally lopped and felled. Ironically, our star pickets, indicating the locations of trees we have planted and the trees they guarded, have gone. Tyre marks where both once were match those of the contractor’s workers’ ‘Hugemobiles’.

Whenever I have attempted to ask the contractor about a compromise in noise levels to allow, for instance, international online interviews, I’ve been met with abuse—category five stuff like ‘f..k off bitch’ or ‘Who the f..k do you think you are?’ Then the police arrested my partner over a bruised star picket. My own bruised psyche is left outside the phantom gated community that comes with money.

The demolition team, true to its name, in demolishing the brick upper boundary wall killed other aged and significant trees. One was a memorial to my mother, who survived the Spanish Civil War, which her family didn’t. The other, dedicated to a poet executed in his home nation in the Middle East, was replaced by a sickly eucalypt that died after planting. In addition to the psychological loss, both trees shielded us from the destruction crew and the street, both of which face our bedroom window. I was thinking of trying for another family arrest by displaying my naked body as I used to do in life classes, rather than bending, folded like a Catholic supplicant, and scuttling low to don the day’s duds.

Despite our neighbour having a four-year-old son, by the time they move in, the land will have no trees for him to climb, no butterflies to chase, no bees to sting, no birds to wonder at, and no flowers to pick. Instead, geography is being bent, levelled and shaved to suit his needs: a boundary-to-boundary concrete house of the type enabled by ex-premier Campbell Newman but nonetheless still illegal, of a style that would suit Canberra edifice ecology. It will radiate heat unmitigated by any greenery.

On our side, the garden resembles a scene from Quatermass. Council has issued edicts to stop work, but all have been ignored. Being short of staff, it can’t enforce its orders, and the contractor’s aim seems to be to push work to such a level of advancement that demolition would be both uneconomic and dangerous. We look at what is being done with skilled eyes: in the absence of suitable reinforcing, the structure is potentially unsafe. Climate-chaos-induced weather extremes add significantly to that risk.

Ironically, we have a case lingering like the smell of garlic before the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT), which insisted we hire a QCAT arborist to decide which of our trees was objectively troublesome. The contractor had insisted that tree roots had halted progress. We still haven’t heard from QCAT, but even before the due hearing, the developer had made two metre-deep excavations to tear at the roots of our sixty-year-old border trees.

This reminds me of a chat I had with a wildlife officer to whom a woman, leaning out the window of her Mecedes Benz, had complained of ducks shitting in her swimming pool. The officer responded by suggesting that as the identity of the diarrhoeal ducks was unknown, they would have to kill all the world’s ducks…or the woman could use a pool net.

Why am I writing this tirade? Because there’s little effective regulation, such as regular building inspections, official mediation between parties, or timely execution of complaints procedures or orders. Despite paying $500 for QCAT arborist fees, we received their report saying all was fine after our trees were lopped anyway. When we asked the QCAT arborist who would pay for the greenhouse gases released if the trees were cut, he could not answer. But trees may be our best protection until we give up on hydrocarbons.

Aerial shots of Australian suburbs are depressing in their bald sameness, where size, it seems, does matter. Time spent with friends in the United States gave a startling contrast. In American suburbia, trees are profuse, with thickets acting as de facto fences. If only. A tree absorbs anywhere between 10 and 40 kilograms of CO2 per year on average, though others in this inexact science give still higher estimates. Of course, human output of greenhouse gases amounts to millions of tonnes. But trees are one bulwark we can all work to strengthen. The Brisbane council shows little interest in following Woollahra Municipal Council, which according to recent news will require properties to have a tree canopy of up to 35 per cent, setting landscape goals to prevent the very type of overdevelopment that is planned next door to me. But Woollahra has done what councils nationally should. I suspect they would approve of our solution, or perhaps revenge method, of dealing with the noise and abuse of the past two years via tackling council while at the same time planting a veritable forest of saplings next to the ‘Pentridge wall’ our neighbour has constructed.

Citizens, Arise!

Bill Garner

Dec 2020

The first and last defence of democracy is in the street where we live.

About the author

Melody Kemp

Melody has been an environmental journalist working in Asia for 20 years. She had post grads in Tropical Public and Environmental Health. COVID captured in Australia, she has been busy writing eco-fiction for young adults.

More articles by Melody Kemp

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